Stronger foundations provocation: Why we need to stop talking about equality!

30 July 2018

ACF’s Stronger Foundations initiative aims to open challenging discussions about foundation practice and identify what it means to be a ‘stronger’ foundation. As part of the project, we will be publishing a series of provocations from members offering their personal views on the initiative’s themes.

The first in this series is from Fozia Irfan, a member of the working group looking at issues of diversity. Share your thoughts using the hashtag #StrongerFoundations.

As soon as someone mentions the words ‘Equality and Diversity’, my heart sinks, my eyes roll back and I mentally switch off. This may be a common reaction in some people but my disinterest is due to different reasons to most  I can’t abide this combination of terms as they represent everything that is stagnant, misinformed and flawed about addressing inequality. As part of the ACF’s working group exploring this area, one of our first actions was therefore to rename ourselves the ‘Diversity, Equity and Inclusion’ working group.

But what’s wrong with the word ‘equality’? Carry out a quick search on many foundations’ websites and the words inequality and equality are thrown around with careless abandon, however my recent dissertation research has shown that very few staff and trustees in the UK understand the fundamental meanings of these terms. If you question them about what equality looks like, a surprising vagueness and mish-mash of different ideas converge.

Are we talking about achieving equality of opportunity, a level playing field or a utopian meritocracy? Or are we trying to change the lives of people and communities we fund, by enabling them to achieve equality of outcome? Both are fundamentally different philosophical and practical viewpoints and depending on what you are pursuing, you will reach a different destination.

My advice to foundations is that the word ‘equality’ should be abandoned altogether  its roots lie in a legislative framework introduced in the 1970s and it is based on treating people in the same way. An alternative and much more sophisticated approach is to use the conceptual framework of ‘equity’ which is based on fairness not sameness. This is the approach I have been studying on a recent visit to US foundations where I was astounded by the ease with which they incorporate explicit equity language and frameworks in their work. But what does an equity approach actually look like? The famous picture on the right demonstrates.

Equality verses equity imageAn equality approach treats all people equally, providing them with the same opportunities and the classic example of this is through universal funding programmes which most foundations promote, as visualised by the picture to the right. What we fail to acknowledge is that universal funding programmes do not reach people equally and instead what foundations need to explore are equity-based approaches which acknowledge the differentiated starting points of communities and tailor-makes solutions appropriate for them. The D5 coalition of foundations defined equity as promoting:

"justice, impartiality, and fairness within the procedures, processes, and distribution of resources by institutions or systems." 

If we are committed to achieving the greatest public good, using an equity lens makes our funding much more effective. Take the example of the Rosenwald Fund, set up by Julius Rosenwald and Booker T Washington which funded over 8000 schools for black children in the US in the 1920s. These schools were revolutionary and seen as the single most important initiative to advance black education in the last century.

But as well as instituting an equity framework in our approach to grant-making, we also need to consider how we use this lens internally to improve the way we work. What are the systems and processes we have in place which perpetuate and reinforce inequality? Two words which I use frequently and urge you to use too, are ‘coercive isomorphism’  a situation which occurs when a sector coercively imposes a model on, for example, grant applicants, which forces the whole sector to then morph into the model required in order to receive grants. Organisations which do not fit this model i.e. small informal grassroots groups, fail to access funding although conversely they are the closest to the communities we are trying to reach.

A further aspect of our work at the ACF working group is to look at the meaning of diversity, commonly understood to refer to demographics but which, for me, refers more broadly to having a diversity of perspectives. The recent report on the trustees of foundations, highlighted the shocking lack of diversity amongst trustees.

Some have questioned if this is an issue at all, as the trustees are representative of the original donors, yet if the stated aim of foundations (and the reason for their charitable status) is to work towards the public good in some way, surely ensuring the expertise of a diverse board is fundamental to that? Legitimacy to act with authority and knowledge in the public arena, as a Board and as foundation staff necessitates the inclusion of those we are seeking to work with and their representation at decision-making level. The work of the organisation Ten Years' Time with their 2027 project is a vital first step which all foundations should consider getting involved in to improve diversity of perspectives.

Finally, a note on inclusion  why is this important? Creating an open, engaged and transparent culture where all voices are heard and valued is fundamental to changing a sector. Regulation, best practice guidance, toolkits etc. will all fail unless there is a shift in the way in which individuals and foundations work and we alter our working culture to enable safe spaces for challenging conversations. Critically, it is with meaningful conversations that we must start; talking about the value that diversity, equity and inclusion can bring to our sector to make us stronger and more effective. As James Baldwin so eloquently concluded:

"Not everything that is faced can be changed but nothing can be changed until it is faced."

Fozia Irfan
Bedfordshire and Luton Community Foundation

Views in this series are the personal views of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of the working group, ACF, or its wider membership. Find out more information about Stronger Foundations.